Balikbayan box as political casket

It was somewhat unexpected that this would ever happen under the watch of the son of a great man who, not unlike OFWs, spent years living abroad in exile before coming home a hero. The son should know better, having lived in exile with his father.

But it has happened and it is being defended by the son’s associates: The Bureau of Customs’ “inspections” of balikbayan boxes, and how it is out to make “tax evaders” pay the mandatory customs duties.

What irks the nation is this: Customs and Malacañang are practically accusing every single “modern hero” overseas Filipino worker (OFW) of tax evasion. The nerve.

Truth to tell, OFWs save their hard-earned money for months just to fill up and send a single balikbayan box back to the country — on top of sending home their remittances every month.

It beggars the mind that Customs and Malacañang are implying that OFWs are out to cheat government of customs duties and taxes through their balikbayan boxes. Not only is it crazy, but it betrays the government’s total lack of knowledge and empathy on the plight of OFWs everywhere, how much they usually earn, why they flee the country in the first place and the challenges they face abroad.

Ask a domestic helper in Hong Kong, a nurse in the United Kingdom, a construction worker in the Middle East, or a teacher in the U.S. They had to leave the country to find work for themselves and for families back home — while at the same time face rising anti-migrant measures and dwindling job prospects wherever they work. Tax evasion is not in their minds. The implied accusation that they are out to cheat government is an insult they can never forgive and forget.

President BS Aquino and his anointed successor Mar Roxas already have much to explain for the administration’s neglect of OFWs as symbolized by the case of Mary Jane Veloso and other forsaken OFWs languishing on death row worldwide. Now, we find the administration’s yellow tentacles all over OFW balikbayan boxes, lusting after new pork from customs duties.

This is a battle between some of the most hard-working and selfless Filipino workers, on one hand, and the so-called Daang Matuwid administration and most corrupt government agency, on the other.

Customs is the same agency where a selective and corrupt application of the law allows smuggling syndicates to evade inspection and payment of customs duties and taxes. It is the same agency that allowed Canadian trash and fake rice into the country while stopping relief goods at ports and books at post offices.

The mere involvement of Customs is in itself a cause for suspicion and alarm. It is no longer a surprise that there are now many reports of pilferage and theft of contents of balikbayan boxes. The most corrupt officials and employees in the entire government — long known for inhabiting Customs — apparently cannot stop themselves from opening and pilfering the balikbayan boxes of hardworking people. 

Who could have thought of these “inspections” and the proposed increase on duties for balikbayan boxes?

First, the hopelessly-corrupt bureaucrats who go abroad, buy lavish items, and then are given a free pass at Customs. These bureaucrats may have thought that OFWs also do what they do: Evade customs duties on their purchases of Porsche cars, jewelry, and other high-ticket goods they buy abroad using ill-gotten wealth.

Second, the ruling Liberal Party desperate to find sources of funds for the pork-rich P3-trillion 2016 national budget. Lawmakers have found it to be riddled with lump-sums that they suspect were put there in aid of the LP’s kulelat standard-bearer.

Or the two may have forged an unholy alliance of equals, of corrupt bureaucrats and pork-crazy ruling party leaders. This should explain why Malacañang was quick and unapologetic in its defense of Customs.

OFWs and their families are understandably outraged. Migrante International and other OFW organizations are preparing to lead protests here at home and in front of Philippine diplomatic missions abroad. The Internet is boiling in fury.

Responding to growing national outrage, Senior Deputy Minority Leader Neri Colmenares and fellow Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate have called on the House to take action to protect OFWs and their balikbayan boxes. We hope the Congress would immediately act on the resolution, call for an end to the “inspections” and stop any new customs duties on balikbayan boxes without conditions.

If Malacañang and their corrupt Customs partners think they could get away with this transparent fundraising blitz at the expense of OFWs, they should be worried. This shows yet again to the entire nation Daang Matuwid’s callousness, unbridled greed, mistaken priorities and its clear bias against the working poor and the middle class — and why we must end it immediately. 10M OFWs and their families surely wouldn’t want six more years of official neglect, abuse and humiliation.

Let me end with a story: There was once a great man who fled the country and went into exile. One August day, he went back home to a people he deemed “worth dying for”. The people tied yellow ribbons to welcome and honor him. He died literally embracing his homeland and millions marched at his funeral. That man became immortal.

If the father offered himself as a sacrifice to help end plunder and humiliation, the son meanwhile reigned as a pork barrel king and subjected the people to endless sacrifice and humiliation. His minions now pin yellow ribbons on pilfered balikbayan boxes. The fates of the son and his sidekick are now encased in those balikbayan boxes-turned-caskets, and the people cannot wait for their political funeral.

Submitted to the Manila Bulletin for publication on 25 Aug. 2015. Featured image titled Aquilizan-in-transit is from The Drawing Room, and the two others are from Manila Bulletin.